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Reflections

Hope for a peaceful resolution of Indian conflict here proved forlorn : Reflections : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Hope for a peaceful resolution of Indian conflict here proved forlorn
by Roger Matile

5/17/2012

After the mixed band of Sauk, Fox and Winnebago Indians crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in April 1832 (see "Reflections," April 5, 2012), Gen. Henry Atkinson, the U.S. Army commander on the western frontier, was far from convinced that Sauk warrior Black Hawk wanted a war with the United States. Although Black Hawk's band had crossed in violation of an agreement not to do so, Atkinson believed the matter could be settled peacefully, if everyone kept cool.

In a letter to U.S. Army Commander Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb on April 13, Atkinson outlined a strategy to diffuse the situation peacefully by not attacking the group, forcing them to fight back. Noting women and children were part of the band, Atkinson suggested hostilities were unlikely: "...they have committed no act of hostility, and probably will not."

It was, as it turned out, a forlorn hope, and Atkinson's concern that an unsuccessful attack would cause trouble for the frontier was well taken, as events soon proved.

Illinois Governor John Reynolds, however, had no such concerns. In fact, with the 1832 elections on the horizon, he, like his political descendants in 2003, apparently figured a short, victorious war would yield great results. On April 16, Reynolds wrote the dismayed Atkinson that he had called out 1,200 mounted militia to meet at Beardstown. Reynolds also noted in his letter that he authorized Illinois Militia Maj. Isaiah Stillman to raise a mounted battalion of four companies of 50 men each, "...to range on the frontier." Reynolds cut the orders to Stillman without Atkinson's authorization.

Although Atkinson felt war was a possibility, his experience told him that, since the British Band was traveling with all their women, children, and old men, a fight was unlikely. Reynolds, on the other hand, was spoiling for a fight to boost his party's chances at the polls.

Black Hawk's decision to lead his people back across the Mississippi had depended on promises of support by the Winnebago Prophet, who said other Indians would flock to the banner of opposition against the Americans, as well as outlandish representations by the Sauk chief Napope, that the British government would send troops to support the Indians. By early May, Black Hawk began to realize he'd been deceived. Black Hawk, leaving his band camped on Sycamore Creek, proceeded to Old Man's Creek, where he invited the resident Potawatomis, Ottawas and Chippewas to discuss his plans. To his dismay, the three tribes made it clear they would in no way support him, and that the tale of British support was a lie. After the Indian leaders left, Black Hawk decided his only course was surrender to Gen. Atkinson.

By May 12, 1832, Brig. Gen. Samuel Whiteside had arrived at Dixon's Ferry (modern Dixon) on the Rock River with a full brigade of Illinois militia, advising Gen. Atkinson he would await the Army's arrival before continuing the pursuit. This did not suit Reynolds' wish for a military victory, so he dashed off an order directing Maj. Stillman to take his and Maj. David Bailey's militia battalions "to the head of Old Man's Creek, where it is supposed the hostile Sac Indians are assembled, for the purpose of taking all cautious measures to coerce said Indians into submission." Reynolds signed Whiteside's name to the order. Whiteside later disavowed all responsibility for the action.

On May 14, Stillman's disorganized band of about 275 mounted militia arrived at Old Man's Creek, camping in a small grove about eight miles below the camp where the three Indian tribes had refused Black Hawk's request for assistance. The militia immediately broke open a barrel of whiskey and began drinking.

Black Hawk, who had already decided to try to surrender and return west of the Mississippi, sent three young men under a flag of truce to negotiate surrender terms. But having had experience with militia, he also sent three other men to watch what happened.

Upon sighting the truce team, a confused mob of militia accosted the unfortunate Indians, and in the resulting disorder, one of the truce team and two of the watchers were slain. Both militia battalions, which was by then little more than a rabble, streamed after the three surviving Indians in a drunken charge towards Black Hawk's camp.

Black Hawk was enraged when he heard the result of the peace mission, and resolved to die fighting. Since most of the old warrior's men were away hunting, there were only a few dozen warriors available for duty, but they nevertheless formed a loose skirmish line along a thin line of shrubbery to await the militia. When the drunken rabble surged into range, the angry Indians charged from cover and fired a volley. To the astonishment of the badly outnumbered Indians, the militia panicked and retreated at a dead run, throwing aside weapons and equipment as they fled.

Reported an embarrassed militia officer in Whiteside's brigade: "Our men gave way and run in confusion to their camps. They were pursued by the Indians, and while our men were retreating with their commander some distance ahead, the Indians killed and mangled 12 of those who were in the rear."

In the brief skirmish, 11 whites and three Indians were killed, and an Indian war had begun. The rash act on Gov. Reynold's part to overawe Black Hawk began a tragic chain of events that would culminate in the death of hundreds of Indians and whites, both from the effects of the war and from the Asiatic cholera carried west by the U.S. Army reinforcements.

Although the settlers, with typical frontier humor, changed the name of Old Man Creek to Stillman's Run to commemorate the major's tactics during the battle, the next few weeks saw a number of white settlers killed as sporadic warfare spread across northern Illinois.

Next week, we'll look at how the balance of the war played out in Kendall County and the rest of northern Illinois, and its impact on the region's settlement.



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